No Country for Old Men

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December 27, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

At the end of Hamlet, everybody dies. It’s the classic “kill ‘em all” tragedy. In the hands of the great English playwright, however, the finale’s massacre becomes a mordant, almost morbidly ironic commentary on the unavoidability of death and the inability of man to affect any kind of certain outcome. The indecisive, inactive, introverted Hamlet and the decisive, active extrovert Laertes cancel each other out. Death is equally doled out to the “behind-the-scenes” mastermind King Claudius and the ignorant, innocent and loving mother, Gertrud. Earlier it comes to the scheming Palonius, as well as to his innocent daughter, Ophelia. Perhaps it’s safe to say that the Coen brothers would disagree with Shakespeare’s mortal egalitarianism, but they certainly seem to agree with the dark irony, as well as the striking combination of absurd humor in the face of existential crisis.

Adapted from the Cormac McCarthy novel, it stars Tommy Lee Jones as Ed Tom Bell, an old-time sheriff in the ancient land of 1980s West Texas, who finds himself lost in a frightening, brave new world of drug-runners and mass-murderers. Josh Brolin is Llewelyn Moss, a retired Vietnam veteran who lives with his wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), in a trailer. One day, Moss stumbles upon the aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. After finding and taking the money (symbolically situated beneath a decaying tree—the ultimate “Forbidden Fruit”), Moss quickly finds himself pursued by the psychotic Anton Chigurh (Javier Barden), hired to track him down. After Chigurh kills his benefactors, Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson) is hired to track the both of them down. What ensues is a nigh-metaphysical cat-and-mouse game between all the parties involved.

Of all the Coens’ films, I find myself at a loss as to where to begin (much less end) with lauding this one. For starters, the dynamic duo has done a phenomenal job rendering the West Texas landscape, its rhythms and atmosphere. There’s an eerie stillness, calmness and ease that pervades the film even at its most action-oriented moments. The cinematography of the pair’s longtime collaborator Roger Deakins is impeccable, capable of rendering both the painterly beauty as well as the starkness of the settings. Languid long-shots of the landscape open the film, and they are a consistent feature throughout, reminiscent of the symbolically heavy pillow shots in Ozu, or perhaps the poetic rendering of the same landscape in Wenders’ Paris, Texas.

The writing is as pristine as the visuals and, here, the Coens have achieved a monumental minimalism. Like the best minimalism, it wrings the utmost value and potency from what’s there. Two of the most haunting, poignant monologues in film history bookend the film; both utter metaphysical philosophy (the latter in a dream allegory) while still sounding utterly authentic to the types of down-home country-boys that reside in the region, like Ed Tom Bell. Elsewhere, as in the already infamous confrontation between Chigurh and the gas station proprietor (“What business is it of yours where I’m from, friendo?” … “What’s the most you ever lost on a coin toss?” … “Call it.”), there’s an understated naturalness married with a hyperbolic absurdity, an oxymoronic combination if ever there was one. The Coens may not quite be art-house directors, but in these scenes they’re reminiscent of a director like Tsai Ming-liang who frequently manages to craft scenes that violently clash the ordinary and everyday with the extraordinary and fantastic, finding drama, humor, philosophy and humanity smashed somewhere between the real and the artifice.

Luckily, the performances match the direction. Brolin is so convincing that anyone would swear that he’s been a cowboy all his life. Tommy Lee Jones is actually from the region and he portrays Ed Tom Bell with ease. Perhaps most surprising is the Scottish Kelly Macdonald as Carla Jean who manages to nail the Southern drawl while creating chemistry in the few scenes between her and Brolin. Towering above all of them is the singular performance of Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh. The Coens mention that the character is just lightly sketched in the book which gave them plenty of freedom to construct the character. Bardem certainly jumped at the chance, creating a character that is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen in cinema. The miracle is that so much is achieved by the look alone; the costumes provided by another longtime Coen collaborator, Mary Zophres, sets the tone immediately by contrasting Chigurh with everyone else in West Texas. He’s clearly a character out of place, and perhaps even out of time. Bardem capitalizes on this stylistic and temporal ambiguity by creating an ethnic one as well. To his immense credit, he doesn’t push the character too far into cartoonish extremes. Chigurh may be a near-inhuman force, but he’s a terrifyingly realistic one, nonetheless.

The film is also marked by subtle parallels and contrasts that give it a musical rhythm. The plaintive voiceover of Bell washes over the opening frames of the desert landscape like a spectral (fore)shadow. This leads to the scene of Chigurh being arrested, only to brutally strangle the arresting officer with his handcuffs (ironically, after the officer uttering that he has everything under control). Next, Chigurh pulls a man over to the side of the road and tells him to “hold still” while he kills him with a pressurized cattle gun. This transitions to Moss whispering “hold still” while he trains a deer in the sights of his rifle. He fires and injures the deer (contrasted with Chigurh much more effectively killing the man), and proceeds to track him with the blood trail (one of the film’s many motifs). When the trail ends, Moss instead finds a limping, bleeding black dog (an uncanny echo to the mysterious, perhaps supernatural black dog in Tarkovsky’s Stalker) that leads him to the scene, the money and the man dying of thirst. After taking the money, the morally conscious Moss finds himself unable to sleep without bringing the man some water, the decision that ultimately sets off the film’s violent chain of events. Another potent contrast between the two surfaces after their only real confrontation; both receive bullet wounds and this sends Moss to a Mexican hospital for others to take care of, while Chigurh elects to take care of himself, digging the bullet out of his own leg.

The Coens too have always been fascinated by the almost ritualistic act of doing things in order to affect outcomes. No Country is almost leisurely in how it goes about focusing on the mere “doing” of things, like Moss figuring out how to hide the money satchel in a rundown hotel air vent. This rhythmic patience is echoed in the editing, which hangs on static or slowly changing shots longer than the norm, paradoxically ramping up the tension to extreme degrees without ever uttering a word.

Like Shakespeare, the Coens are obsessed with the forces that move us—with those who are aware of such forces and try to willfully move them, those who are unaware of such forces and are ignorantly moved by them and what happens when any such combinations clash. But the Coens inject a modern—perhaps postmodern—sense of quantum uncertainty (much more obviously manifested in 2009’s A Serious Man) as opposed to Shakespeare’s fatalism; such forces may come into conflict, the outcome may not be certain, but the outcomes are certainly influenced by the types of forces moved and the decisions made by those involved. Moss dies because he is an active force that is afflicted with a moral consciousness—a decisive uncertainty—that renders him weaker than the active force that has no such conflict. Wells dies because, in spite of his calculated intelligence, he’s still tied down by materialism. Bell survives because he’s effectively on the outside looking in, always one step behind the forces that he’s chasing, always looking into the dark abyss, hoping for a guiding light. Carla Jean, like the gas station proprietor, is simply subject to the forces of chance and fate, having lived lives where they allow themselves to be moved.

But what about Chigurh? Certainly, he’s the most enigmatic case, but when viewed in the force-framework, Chigurh becomes the party that is completely devoid of any materialistic weight. He lacks Moss’ morality and compassion and he lacks Wells’ materialism. He is simply a force of chaotic nature, a force that allows himself to be freely blown towards a higher (perhaps unconscious, perhaps unknown) objective. Anyone that gets in the way is either collateral damage (such as the people whom he kills when hijacking), or have it coming because they are opposing forces (Moss, Wells, the businessmen behind it all). In such confrontations, the stronger force wins, and Chigurh is the stronger force precisely because he is not subject to the cares that the others have. However, in a stroke of genius, the Coens reveal a flaw in the force’s design; Chigurh can’t make conscious decisions. When it comes to forces that aren’t either directly or indirectly in his way, Chigurh can’t kill them, because doing so would violate his code. In these cases, the coin becomes the surrogate consciousness and chance becomes the decider.

This framework sets up the ending where Chigurh confronts Carla Jean. Chigurh had promised Moss that he would kill her, yet the earlier killing of Moss by others interrupts the planned confrontation, so Chigurh is left in a position where he can’t possibly fulfill the higher plan. So, to avoid making the decision, he uses the coin. But Carla Jean overcomes the device by refusing to call it, by refusing to take the decision out of Chigurh’s hands (or head). This utterly forces the unconscious force to make a decision and, once he does, he equally becomes subject to the forces of uncertainty and fate (like Richard III being swallowed up in the world of the play in which he was previously outside of and commenting on). The conscious entity awakes into this new dynamic world and is immediately met by the most random of events—a car crash. The ghost bleeds because the ghost is human, and it’s the human Chigurh that walks out of the film, stripped of his mythical godlike status. Because, as the great philosopher Arnold Schwarzenegger once said, “if it bleeds, we can kill it”.

Even outside Chigurh the Coens find uncanny ways of presenting this theme. In one of the more direct scenes, Bell relates a story to Carla Jean about a friend of his who was injured while trying to slaughter a steer. After whacking it in the head and slitting its throat, the steer was just stunned and “starts thrashing around, six hundred pounds of very pissed-off livestock”, as Bell puts it. When the man tries to shoot it, the bullet ricochets and catches him in the shoulder. Bell concludes with “even in the contest between man and steer, the issue is not certain”. It’s precisely that uncertainty that ends with the cattle gun that farmers use now, and that Chigurh uses. If uncertainty afflicts the film’s characters, the Coens equally thrust it onto the audience. The final scene with Moss contains the pregnant exchange between him and an anonymous poolside woman where he says he’s looking for what’s coming, while she replies, “nobody ever sees that”. This particular foreshadowing shock is delivered to the viewers who next see Moss dead in a hotel room, murdered by anonymous Mexicans who are only seen as they’re fleeing the scene. The Coens even end the film with Bell’s monologue that leaves the film hanging in an uneasy, suspended limbo, like a musical composition where the dissonance is left unresolved.

The attempt at eliminating this uncertainty and the ability to cope with it when you can’t is truly at the heart of the film. But, in the wise words of Bell’s friend Ellis (played lovingly by Barry Corbin), “Whatcha got ain’t nothin new. This country’s hard on people, you can’t stop what’s coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.” The world doesn’t revolve around us, as much as we love to (unconsciously) think it does, and even the most certain and calculating actions can lead to the most random of outcomes. So, perhaps, the philosophical lesson of the film is in-line with Shakespeare, even if the conclusion of the events and fate of the characters aren’t: After all the “to be or not to be”, the only conclusion left to come to is: “let be”.

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